Although largely forgotten today, W.H.H. Llewellyn served as a lawman, Indian agent and Rough Rider and counted among his friends Theodore Roosevelt, Pat Garrett and Albert Fountain.
Reminiscing on the notable characters of the frontier West he had met in his long life, Colonel Ethan W. Eaton, the leading business- man of Socorro, New Mexico, and leader of the local vigilante group popularly known as the Socorro Strangers, wrote:
Some men get so used to gunfire that they can inhale the smoke without choking. Apparently, they value their lives no more highly than they do a “stack of chips” placed on the “high” card. Undoubtedly this utter fearlessness is, in a sense, a protection, but there are times when it looks like folly. I have known a few such men, among them being “Pat” Garrett, who killed “Billy the Kid”; Major [W.H.H.] Llewellyn, who was a former agent at the Mescalero Apache Indian Reservation in New Mexico, later a captain in Roosevelt’s Rough Riders; Jim Courtwright [sic]; Luke Short; Captain “Joe” Sheeley [sic] of the Texas Rangers; and Captain Jack Crawford, the “Poet Scout.”
Such men might be considered unusual company for a gentleman like W.H.H. Llewellyn. The others all achieved fame on the frontier: lawman Pat Garrett, who shot down outlaw Billy the Kid; celebrated gunfighter Luke Short, who outgunned equally notorious gunman Jim Courtright; Josephus Shely, one of five brothers who served with distinction in the Texas Rangers; and John “Jack” Wallace Crawford, a renowned chief of scouts for the U.S. Army in campaigns against the Indians in the Black Hills and New Mexico Territory. Llewellyn, on the other hand, was an attorney, a politician and an intimate friend of President Theodore Roosevelt.
Actually, William Henry Harrison Llewellyn—who was born on September 9, 1851, in Monroe, Green County, Wis., of Welsh descent and named for the ninth U.S. president—was far more than a lawyer and politician. He had an adventurous, action-filled, colorful early career as a lawman, Indian agent and soldier. He was, as Roosevelt described him, “a large, jovial, frontier Micawber type of person with a varied past, which includes considerable man-killing.”
The fifth of seven children born to Joseph, a carpenter, and Louisa (Fry) Llewellyn, William in his youth displayed an exceptional intellect and capacity for learning. His parents sent him off to Tabor College, a newly opened institution of the Congregational church in Fremont County, Iowa, where he received a liberal arts education. He was still in his teens when he was graduated, but he had almost attained his mature height of more than 6 feet and weight of 200 pounds. Bursting with energy and a lust for adventure, he headed for the mining camps of Montana Territory. The 1870 federal census enumerated Llewellyn as a 19-year-old miner and resident of Pioneer and Pike’s Peak camp in Deer Lodge, Montana Territory. Newspapers in later years reported that he was a leader of a famous—or infamous—vigilante group during his time in Montana, but this has yet to be confirmed.
Returning eastward in the early 1870s, Llewellyn settled in Omaha, Neb., where he reportedly worked for a short time as a land speculator, a reporter for the Omaha Bee and an agent for the McCormick Harvesting Machine Co. of Chicago, before turning to law enforcement, holding positions as a tax collector, jailer and patrolman for the city. In 1878 he was appointed a deputy U.S. marshal. That year he also married a teenaged Iowa girl named Ida May Little, with whom he would raise seven sons and daughters.
Deputy Marshal Llewellyn bragged to fellow officers that during his time in Montana Territory he had learned a great deal about the workings of outlaw bands. This information ultimately filtered up to Washington, D.C., and in May 1879 he received a letter from Charles Devers, U.S. attorney general in the administration of President Rutherford B. Hayes. Devers offered him a position as special agent of the Justice Department specially assigned to track down a gang in Nebraska led by the notorious horse thief James M. Riley, better known by his alias David C. “Doc” Middleton. By trafficking in whiskey with the Indians and preying on their horse herds, the Middleton gang had broken federal law and jeopardized peaceful relations with the native tribes, explained Devers. Since pay for the position was $5 a day—good wages for the time—and authorities had offered sizable rewards for Middleton’s capture, Llewellyn, who never missed a chance to better himself financially, leaped at the opportunity.
He began his investigation by contacting ex-con L.P. Hazen who lived near Omaha and claimed to have close ties to the gang and to know Middleton personally. With Hazen in tow, Llewellyn ranged over the Niobrara country of Nebraska for a month before reporting to the Justice Department on June 24 that he had garnered sufficient evidence to indict and convict Middleton and other principals of his gang. “It is,” he added, “more a question of getting them into the hands of U.S. marshals than of convicting them after they are in custody.”
With Hazen’s help Llewellyn held several face-to-face meetings with the gang leader and offered him a pardon in return for Middleton’s agreement to assist law enforcement officers in running down other outlaws. On July 20, at a prearranged meeting to close the deal, a gunfight erupted with Llewellyn, Hazen and range detective William Lykens on one side and Middleton and his lieutenant, William “Kid” Wade, on the other. In the exchange Middleton was severely gut-shot, Hazen was struck with three bullets and Llewellyn suffered slight wounds on his arm and hand. Middleton escaped for a time but was captured a week later by squad of soldiers from Fort Hartsuff and lawmen led by Llewellyn. Tried and convicted of horse theft in Wyoming, Middleton received a five-year sentence. Llewellyn nabbed several other prominent members of the gang, including “Black Jack” Nolan and “Little Joe” Johnson.
Lauded in the press for his exemplary work in bringing the Doc Middleton gang to justice, Llewellyn was next assigned to assist lawmen in their battle with the road agents preying on stagecoaches running on the dangerous road between Cheyenne, Wyo., and Deadwood, Dakota Territory. He made several arrests, notably the February 1880 capture of Leon “Curly” Grimes, a former Middleton confederate. While being escorted to jail by Llewellyn and legendary shotgun messenger Boone May (see related story by R.K. DeArment in the December 2010 Wild West), Grimes attempted a desperate escape, forcing the lawmen to gun him down. Some folks in Deadwood accused the two officers of murder, and they faced trial in August. Without leaving the box to deliberate, the jury pronounced May and Llewellyn not guilty.
In early 1881 officials in the administration of newly elected President James A. Garfield awarded Llewellyn, a fellow Republican, a plum new position as Indian agent for the Mescalero Apache Reservation in New Mexico Territory. On June 16, only two weeks before an assassin mortally wounded Garfield, Llewellyn arrived in the territory to assume his new duties. To help him maintain order, Llewellyn recommended the appointment of James L. “Whispering” Smith, who had helped him track down lawbreakers in Nebraska and Wyoming, as chief stock herder and chief of the Indian police.
The reservation comprised some 460,000 acres of the finest grazing land in the territory, and most of the Apache men raised cattle. The Indians—members of the Jicarilla and Mimbres Apache tribes, as well as the Mescaleros—seemed to like Llewellyn and tagged him with the nickname “Tata Crooked Nose.” Only weeks after the agent’s arrival at the reservation, however, renegade Chiricahua Apaches under the war leader Nana crossed the border from Mexico and raided settlements in New Mexico Territory. A few hotheaded Mescaleros sought to organize a war party to join the renegades, and for a year Llewellyn and Smith were hardpressed to maintain peace among their charges. Violence erupted in June 1882 when Llewellyn ordered Smith’s Indian police to arrest one of the instigators. When the man resisted, the police shot and killed him. Angry relatives and friends of the dead Indian protested, sparking a riot in which Llewellyn was twice wounded in the arm. He sent for military support from Fort Stanton, and four troops of cavalry responded to quell the outbreak. Llewellyn and Smith worked together for two years, but after a heated argument in 1883, Smith departed. Llewellyn replaced him with Thomas Brannigan, a good friend who would work closely with (and fight alongside) him in the coming years.
In 1885, when Democrat Grover Cleveland assumed the presidency, many Republican officeholders, including Llewellyn, were obliged to resign. Several newspapers lauded his service as Indian agent. The Albuquerque Journal opined: “Llewellyn has the reputation of being one of the most capable Indian agents in the West. He certainly exerts an extraordinary influence over his savage warriors…[and] has earned a prolongation of his office.” An editorial in the Kansas City Daily Journal asked just what Llewellyn’s Republicanism had to do with his reservation management, asserting the agent had been a marked man since Cleveland’s election. Describing Llewellyn as “a cool, determined and most courageous man,” the editor praised his man-hunting exploits in a “remarkable career,” citing as “one of the most thrilling stories of frontier life” the occasion when Llewellyn risked his life to break up Doc Middleton’s “murderous gang of desperadoes.”
But Llewellyn had always been a controversial figure, and not all editors sang his praises. “It would be extremely hypocritical for the settlers here to pretend sorrow over Llewellyn’s departure,” sniffed the White Oaks Golden Era.
Somehow during these turbulent years Llewellyn found time to study law and obtain a license. After leaving the reservation, he and his growing family moved to Las Cruces, where he set up a private law partnership and became involved in the bitterly contested political battles of the territory in which he had chosen to spend the rest of his life. A lifelong Republican, Llewellyn threw his support to that party and developed strong ties to Republican officials in New Mexico Territory, particularly Colonel Albert Jennings Fountain, a party stalwart and former head of the territorial militia. That relationship automatically put Llewellyn in the sights of Democrat Albert Fall, Fountain’s arch adversary.
In 1888 Llewellyn was elected to represent Doña Ana County in the territorial legislature, thus beginning a long and distinguished political career. He would serve in the New Mexico House of Representatives for many years and hold several important positions, including chairman of the judiciary committee and, in 1917, after statehood, speaker.
When Republican Benjamin Harrison replaced President Cleveland in the White House in 1889, Llewellyn was in contention for appointment as U.S. marshal for New Mexico Territory. Many influential Republicans, including Henry Ware Lawton, inspector general of the Army and a brigadier general in the Spanish-American War, and Edward Rosewater, founder and editor of the Omaha Bee, urged his appointment in writing, but for political reasons Harrison instead chose prominent Hispanic rancher Trinidad Romero.
Fountain then used his influence to have Llewellyn appointed a major in the territorial militia, and the rank followed him the rest of his days. During the bitterly contested elections of 1892, when an outbreak of violence seemed imminent in Las Cruces, Major Llewellyn and his onetime deputy, now Captain Thomas Brannigan, led a contingent of militiamen into town to guard the polls, only to discover that Fall had positioned gunmen on rooftops overlooking the polling place. Seeing that a further advance would bring down a rain of fire, Llewellyn ordered a judicious retreat.
On January 31, 1896, Llewellyn’s close friend and mentor, Albert Fountain, and his young son Henry were returning by buckboard to Las Cruces after a court term in Lincoln County when they mysteriously disappeared in the White Sands, setting off one of the most infamous unsolved mysteries in New Mexico history. When Fountain failed to show, Llewellyn led a 25-man search party that included Brannigan and Doña Ana County Sheriff Eugene Van Patten. They found Fountain’s team and an empty buckboard, blood-soaked sand and spent cartridges, all evidence of a brutal murder.
The February 5 El Paso Daily Herald reported that Llewellyn was “hot on the trail” of the Fountain killers. He was the “right man in the right place” who had for years been “a terror to evildoers, [holding] redskins down [and doing] good work in ridding NM of pale-faced rascals.”
The bodies of Fountain and his son never turned up, but in the ensuing months Llewellyn worked diligently with newly appointed Doña Ana County Sheriff Pat Garrett, Pinkerton Detective Agency operatives and other investigators to solve the mystery. The prime suspects in Llewellyn’s mind were Albert Fall, Fountain’s longtime political foe, whom he believed masterminded the murder plot, and crony Oliver Lee, rancher and leader of a tough crew of gunmen.
The investigation dragged on for years until finally, on April 3, 1898, Llewellyn and Brannigan signed an affidavit accusing Lee and three of his henchmen—William H. McNew, William Carr and James R. Gililland—with the murders of Fountain and his boy. A grand jury eventually indicted Lee and Gililland for the murder of Henry Fountain, and their trial opened on May 1899. Llewellyn was an important witness for the prosecution. Fall, lead defense attorney, at one point in his cross-examination charged Llewellyn with contradictory testimony, bringing on a heated exchange between Fall and Tom Catron, who was assisting District Attorney Richmond Barnes in the prosecution. The jury acquitted the defendants, much to the disgust of the Fountain family, Llewellyn, Garrett and others.
When the United States declared war on Spain in 1898, Theodore Roosevelt, then assistant secretary of the Navy, resigned to organize a regiment of fighting men from the Western territories to fight the Spaniards in Cuba. He asked New Mexico Territorial Governor Miguel Antonio Otero to recruit troops and appoint captains. When that news reached Catron, by then head of the notorious Santa Fe Ring and a political power boss in the territory, he hurried to the governor’s office in Santa Fe and demanded Otero appoint Catron’s son John as captain of one of the rumored two troops. Otero said he was sorry, but his choices were William Llewellyn and George Curry, another experienced frontier fighting man and a close Llewellyn friend.
Although they were fellow members of his own party, Catron had no love for either Curry or Llewellyn. “Damn’d good appointments!” he replied bitterly to the governor. “Curry will take it and get killed. It will be good riddance. I am only afraid Llewellyn won’t go and won’t be killed.”
In the end Otero was authorized to raise four troops, designated the New Mexico Squadron, for the new regiment. Llewellyn and Curry commanded two of them and became part of the 1st U.S. Volunteer Cavalry—Roosevelt’s legendary Rough Riders. Due to a transport foul-up Curry’s troop never made it to Cuba, but Troop G under Captain Llewellyn did and reportedly fought “with great gallantry and distinction” at the Battles of Las Guasimas and San Juan Hill. One story, probably apocryphal, had it that Llewellyn, having mislaid his weapon, led his troop up San Juan Hill armed with an ax.
Llewellyn, like many of his fellow soldiers, contracted the dreaded yellow fever and was medically evacuated. For a time he was listed as missing in action, causing his wife and children great concern. But eventually they learned he was recuperating in a New York City hospital. Governor Otero chanced to be in New York when the regiment returned from Cuba and took part in the celebrations. He was particularly proud of his New Mexico Squadron and took six officers with him to Presbyterian Hospital to visit Llewellyn. It was a moving moment for them all, especially Llewellyn. “When we were about to go,” recalled Otero, “the major burst into tears.”
Llewellyn never wholly recovered from his illness and was plagued with recurring bouts of fever the rest of his life. Rough Rider veterans formed an association and held annual reunions. Llewellyn helped organize these get-togethers and spoke at most of them. At one such banquet on February 11, 1899, the Rough Riders honored Otero, and Llewellyn, “very handsome in a striking new uniform,” presented the governor with a honorary medal and delivered a speech “with eloquence and grace,” according to Otero’s memoir. In 1905 Roosevelt presented Llewellyn with a presitgious appointment as U.S. attorney for New Mexico Territory. Two years later the president appointed George Curry, Llewellyn’s longtime friend and fellow Rough Rider captain, governor of the territory.
Curry and Llewellyn were two among many influential New Mexicans continually urging Roosevelt to back their campaign for statehood. When the two met with the president at the White House in 1909, he told them he was displeased by continuing criminality in the territory. “I know your ambition is to have New Mexico made a state,” he told Curry, “but before you can get statehood you must clean house in New Mexico and show to Congress that the people of New Mexico are capable of governing themselves.” Complicating matters was Llewellyn’s reported lack of cooperation in a recent land fraud investigation, though he was in no way implicated in that scandal. Regardless, at U.S. Attorney General Charles J. Bonaparte’s insistence, Llewellyn tendered his resignation as federal attorney for New Mexico. Roosevelt—who, according to Curry, “thought more of Llewellyn than of any other man in New Mexico”—reluctantly accepted the resignation on condition that Llewellyn be appointed a special assistant attorney general and that Curry appoint him attorney for his district as soon as a vacancy occurred. New Mexico Territory finally claimed statehood in 1912, and Llewellyn was a member of its constitutional convention.
When the United States declared war on Germany in 1917, Theodore Roosevelt sought to form a volunteer infantry regiment to join the fight, and many of his former Rough Riders answered the call. Curry was to be a major and raise four companies. Llewellyn, 65 years old and suffering from a number of ailments, knew he could not join, but at his suggestion Curry tapped Llewellyn’s son Morgan as one of his company captains. In the end, President Woodrow Wilson nixed the planned regiment, denying Roosevelt the chance to be the hero of another war. Three of Llewellyn’s sons did serve, however.
In 1927, his eyesight fading and his big body weakened from the effects of multiple ailments, W.H.H. Llewellyn entered the Army-run Beaumont Hospital in El Paso, Texas, and there he died on June 11. He was, recalled the El Paso Daily Herald, “Of the best type of pioneers: educated, forceful, courageous, considerate and of high character.”
Llewellyn, Roosevelt, and ‘Gritto’
Following his service in the Rough Riders, Captain W.H.H. Llewellyn remained friends with his old commander, Teddy Roosevelt, the two carrying on a regular correspondence. In his 1913 autobiography Roosevelt noted that letters from Llewellyn, who clearly kept tabs on other former Rough Riders, often contained “bits of interesting gossip” about the Western comrades who had served under Roosevelt and their six-shooter activities. He quoted one such letter as an example:
Since I last wrote you, Comrade Ritchie has killed a man in Colorado. I understand that the comrade was playing a poker game, and the man sat into the game and used such language that Comrade Ritchie had to shoot. Comrade Webb has killed two men in Beaver, Arizona. Comrade Webb is in the Forest Service, and the killing was in the line of professional duty. I was out at the penitentiary the other day and saw Comrade Gritto, who, you may remember, was put there for shooting his sister-in-law. Since he was in there Comrade Boyne has run off to Old Mexico with his (Gritto’s) wife, and the people of Grant County think he ought to be let out.
Roosevelt, who was familiar with Gritto’s predicament, remarked, “Evidently, the sporting instincts of the people of Grant County had been roused, and they felt that, as Comrade Boyne had had a fair start, the other comrade should be let out in order to see what would happen.”
Gritto—real name Francisco “Frank” C. Brito—was a native of Pinos Altos, New Mexico Territory. In 1898 he had served with the Rough Riders in Cuba. In September 1900, suspecting his wife of infidelity, he slipped back to his house one day, peeked in a bedroom window and saw a couple in an amorous embrace. Rushing into the house, pistol in hand, he began firing. The man escaped unharmed, but the woman, who turned out to be his sisterin-law, fell dead, shot through the eye. Charged with murder, a desperate Brito wrote the president: “Dear Colonel: I write you because I am in trouble. I have shot a lady in the eye. But, Colonel, I was not shooting at the lady. I was shooting at my wife.” In a letter to Llewellyn, Roosevelt remarked that although Brito apparently regarded such a mistake as a sufficient excuse between men of the world, he “drew the line at shooting at ladies,” and directed Llewellyn as attorney general to see that the case was vigorously prosecuted. When in due course Llewellyn reported that Brito had been convicted and sentenced to 10 years in the New Mexico Territorial Penitentiary at Santa Fe, the president responded, “I am very glad that you prosecuted Britto [sic], as we cannot afford to let it be thought that we… shield bad men because they are Rough Riders.”
In June 1905 Governor Miguel Otero pardoned Brito after he had served four years of his sentence. Brito then worked in law enforcement in Las Cruces. He was up into his 90s and one of the last surviving Rough Riders when a reporter interviewed him in November 1970. Asked his age, Brito replied: “I was born August 24, 1877. In case you do not know, no parts are available for that model anymore.”
Roosevelt and Llewellyn would have been pleased their Rough Rider comrade had retained his dignity and sense of humor
R.K. DeArment, an award-winning author of Western books, is a frequent contributor to Wild West. His book Assault on the Deadwood Stage: Road Agents and Shotgun Messengers is suggested for further reading, along with Allen P. Bristow’s Whispering Smith: His Life and Misadventures and the autobiography George Curry, 1861–1947.
Originally published in the February 2013 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here.